Songs of Blood and Sword

A Daughter's Memoir


By Fatima Bhutto

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In September 1996, fourteen-year-old Fatima Bhutto hid in a windowless dressing room, shielding her baby brother, while shots rang out in the dark outside the family home in Karachi. This was the night her father Murtaza was murdered. It was the latest in a long line of tragedies for one of the world’s best-known political dynasties.

Songs of Blood and Sword tells the story of a family of feudal landlords who became powerbrokers. It is an epic tale of intrigue, the making of modern Pakistan, and ultimately, tragedy. A searing testament to a troubled land, Songs of Blood and Sword reveals a daughter’s love for her father and her search to uncover the truth of his life and death.


Praise for Songs of Blood and Swords
"The book [Songs of Blood and Sword] is at once a heartbreaking love story between father and daughter; a pilgrimage across the globe to fill in the missing pieces about her father and the Bhutto family's history; an autopsy of Pakistan's corrupt ruling elite; and Fatima's take on the ills at the heart of Pakistan's relationship to the West. It's also a riveting political tale filled with cliff-hangers and pathos."
—Elizabeth Rubin, Vogue
"Mesmerizing . . . Songs of Blood and Sword is passionate, it is romantic, it is colorful."
—Brooke Allen, Barnes and Noble Review
"Her mesmerizing book often has the feel of a detective inquiry into the events of a Jacobean tragedy in which a dynasty is inexorably eliminated. But it's much more than that: a biography of her father; a memoir of a fractured, nomadic childhood largely spent in exile in Afghanistan and Syria; and a history of Pakistan since partition. What might have been a poignant but limited exercise in filial piety is instead a multi-layered work, as remarkable for its adroit interweaving of the personal and the political as for its ambitious scope."
—John Dugdale, The Guardian
"It's a dramatic story that tells of feudal power and dynastic infighting, yet sums up the failings of Pakistani democracy, when one entitled family can so dominate its political landscape."
—Arifa Akbar, The Independent
"Beautifully written in lyrical prose."
—Khushwant Singh
"She is a compassionate and brave campaigner who ought to be heard."
—Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
"Admirable and touching . . . fascinating . . . gripping . . . essential reading."
—Brenda Maddox, The Times
"Songs of Blood and Sword is a daughter's memoir, but it is also more than that. Through the history of the Bhutto family, rich feudal landlords of a warrior caste, she tells the story of the newly created state of Pakistan. It is a book about the power of love, but also about a search to avenge her father's brutal murder."
—Janine Di Giovanni, Daily Telegraph
"Her book will be valuable to readers who want to understand why Pakistan is such an ungovernable mess. In her account, the country's entire political culture is based on corruption, violence, opportunism, mendacity and a feudal economic system."
—Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post
"The author documents her family's history in her memoir, which is both violent and romantic and that excavates the small things about their lives. The book is a historical walk through her late father's life, and it's also a family history, showing how her surname and the country are tied together . . . how the family has been part of the turbulence of a country conflicted."
—Lori Kozlowski, Los Angeles Times
"Political intrigue, administrative corruption and widespread avarice, refracted through a narrative of family history and sibling hostilities, make Songs of Blood and Sword read like a darker version of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy."
—Malcolm Sen, Irish Times
"For those who like their history presented in personal terms, it will not disappoint. Hope, injustice, drama and grief are all ably captured and conveyed in what is a highly readable introduction to the grim realities of domestic politics in Pakistan."
—Roderick Matthews, Observer (London)
"Fatima, niece of famous Pakistani leader Banazir Bhutto, exposes the corruption and violence that she's experienced first-hand, and an inspiring and stalwart hope in a more just future. The big picture politics are anchored by a very personal story about a daughter searching for the truth about her father's murder. Incredibly moving."
"Fatima Bhutto has dug deep, bravely confronted those in power and searched far and wide for answers and understanding."
New York Journal of Books
" . . . a lucid and engaging account of a nation and a family."
Publishers Weekly
"A bleak, disturbing picture of a country of strategic importance to American foreign policy."
"Moving, witty . . . a uniquely fascinating, wonderfully wellconstructed memoir."
—William Dalrymple, Financial Times
"The Bhuttos are an Asian Borgia or Plantagenet dynastic family. This then is an important and timely book offering a rare insight into the violent world of Pakistani politics told by a direct witness. It's also the story of a daughter's love for her murdered father and many other members of her family. Power not only corrupts – it kills."
—Sir Bob Geldof

For my Joonam, Nusrat, who is always with me
And my mother Ghinwa
for giving me life

Taken from a family tree commissioned by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and kept in 70 Clifton

Poem of the Unknown
On your breast lay
the deep scar of your enemy
but you standing cypress did not fall
it is your way to die.
In you nestles songs of blood and sword
in you the migrating birds
in you the anthem of victory
Your eyes have never been so bright.

12 November 2008
It is almost eleven at night in Karachi. From my bedroom in 70 Clifton I can hear the constant hum of traffic. I'm used to the sound now; it has become the soundtrack to my writing and thinking here. But now there are sirens too. Ambulances, or maybe politicians, driving around the city blaring out announcements of their arrival. Heavily armed elite guards, mainly Rangers toting Kalashnikovs, accompany them. Sometimes, there's gunfire. More often than not, it's a staccato burst and it sounds far away. It's not the wedding season in Karachi, when macho males take to the streets and spray the sky with bullets. It's not New Year's Eve, traditionally boisterous and often peppered with gunfire to mark the start of the New Year. This is the new Karachi. But we've seen it all before.
Fourteen years ago I missed weeks of school because of the violence that had taken hold of our city. I remember going to sleep hearing the hum of bullets nearby. I remember picking up the newspapers the next morning and seeing the previous night's body count. It was a dangerous city then, my Karachi. The Sindhi PPP government launched a genocidal strike, called Operation Clean-Up, against the ethnic Muhajirs who form the bulk of the MQM political party. The MQM began to hit back. They formed their own death squads and the sound of their revenge became aggressively familiar too.
There were moments, when I was younger, when it scared me to be here in Karachi, in this house. I used to shiver in the dead of summer nights, begging myself to sleep and praying that I might push past the fear of the violence and the spectres of the dead that surrounded me and my city. But one night I heard the mynah birds outside my window crowing at five in the morning. After that I would wait to hear them, these dark, rough birds, and I would fall asleep as they reassured me with their raven song that we had defeated the night once more. I made my peace with 70 Clifton and with this city when I realized that the sounds of the mynah birds would not follow me elsewhere and that I would miss them should I pack my bags and head somewhere far away
But that was a long time ago. We haven't lived like this in over a decade. We haven't been this afraid in a long time.
After the PPP government fell in 1996, on the heel of more violence, we had a few years of calm in Karachi as Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the sometimes opposition sometimes ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, blundered through his own second term. It was quiet then. We went to school, took our tests, ate our watery lunch at the school cafeteria, and came home safely.
After the Musharraf coup and the advent of the war on terror, we saw violence rear its head in our city again. The times and methods of terror had changed in the sleepy interim period; violence shifted its course and mutated, growing stronger until it became an unrecognizable strain of what we once knew intimately. This time they weren't gunmen. Instead, they were suicide bombers and they tended to strike fast-food outlets and crowded malls designed like traditional bazaars. When they were feeling particularly aggrieved, they attacked embassies. But we Karachiites, so schooled in survival, knew which ones to avoid. We avoided driving past the American consulate. We didn't drive very close to the British high commission either. And we ordered take-away when we were feeling peckish.
The electricity just went off, blinking out in between the typing of these words. The lights go out all the time now; this is the fifth time the power has been cut today. It's worse outside the city, though. A friend recently returned from the interior told me today that in central Sindh villagers are lucky to get two hours electricity a day, if any at all. Autumn in Sindh, oddly enough, is one of the hottest periods of the year. Rarely, on good days, my friend explained, four hours worth of electricity might reach the poorest houses across the province. There is, fortunately, a generator in my house so I sit in the darkness listening to the restless sound of Karachi's errant traffic, chaotically composed of cars, trucks, amped-up motorcycles carrying families of four or more and auto rickshaws, as I wait by the glow of my laptop for the generator to whirr into life. Its frenzied sound overpowers everything. It's like a mosquito buzzing in my ear as I write.
Electricity prices under this new PPP government have soared. The Karachi Electrical Supply Company, one of the most corrupt organizations in this country, has always been appalling – no matter whether you're at home or not your electricity bill is always the same. You pay phenomenal changes and then sit in darkness for most of the year. The poor, who don't have generators, subsist in darkness. Pakistan recently missed its millennium goal of eradicating polio, still rife in our country, because the state could not guarantee the proper refrigeration of the vaccines. Corruption is as simple as that. This winter, Karachi traders have decided not to pay their KESC bills in protest over the latest blackouts. They've been on the streets every day this week, burning their electricity bills in Saddar, the city's commercial centre; burning tyres in Malir, a poor Baloch neighbourhood near the airport; and protesting outside local press clubs and business centres. India has just launched a moon mission and we can't even light up the streets. We are a nuclear-armed state that cannot run refrigerators.
But back to the violence. We've had a record number of suicide bombings in the past year, topping Iraq and Afghanistan at various points. Suicide bombers have grown plucky now; they are no longer targeting infidel Western food outlets or foreign embassies. Now they strike on main roads, outside office buildings, police stations and army barracks; they direct their vengeance against the government and those politicians, back in office, who have promised us to a foreign power.
For several months, unmanned American Predator drones have been flying over Northern Pakistan in what feels like daily missions. Local newspapers report the strikes that kill scores of people with disheartening ease. They say the 'operations' were 'successful'. Our newspapers, which are now so heavily censored that my column, which I wrote for two years, has been halted because the democratic government of Pakistan does not tolerate criticism – especially not internally – are shallow empty shells of what newspapers ought to be. They never say exactly what they mean – that a 'successful' drone mission means people were killed, often as they slept. Sometimes, they tell us that the dead were militants. Sometimes they tell us they were Al Qaeda operatives. Other times, they say they were part of the burgeoning Pakistani Taliban. They're never civilians. There are never mistakes; the drones remove the possibility of human error. This is terrorist hunting, American-style. Dead women and children killed in their schools and fields are 'human shields', young boys armed with only blackboard slates in their local madrassahs, since they have no government schools to attend, are future jihadis, it is inconceivable that anything less than the hysterical is possible.
We are a country that has enthusiastically fought the war on terror against our own people for the last seven years. But never before have we allowed a foreign country, American or otherwise, to carry out strikes on our own soil. It's unheard of. Never before have we allowed machines to fly through our skies and kill our citizens for free, as if life here costs nothing and can be swiftly cancelled out if the political will is strong enough.
Pakistan is being spoken of now, as if the transition happened quietly, almost secretly, as the third front in this war: Afghanistan, Iraq and now Pakistan. Robert Fisk was on Al Jazeera – a channel still officially banned in Pakistan, the ban circumvented by wily cable operators – saying the excitement over the recent global financial meltdown has been used to cover the fact that Pakistan is the world's new battleground. The American vice-presidential candidates, in their debate, both said Pakistan represents more danger than Iran. Barack Obama has said, if need be, America will bomb us. But they already have.
Tonight, as I write this, the BBC is reporting that a US missile strike in North Waziristan has killed eight schoolchildren. Two missiles, fired from yet another drone, hit the school this morning. The school was near a supposed Taliban commander's house. The Pakistani Army issued a classic we're investigating this response. The United States has said nothing. This is how wars are fought now. The new President of Pakistan has hungrily asked for drone technology for himself; he needs it, he says, to fight Pakistan. The new parliament has vowed vigorously to continue to help America, and its allies, the Pakistani Army, to launch successful operations against the terrorists. Or militants. Or Al Qaeda. Or schoolchildren, if they happen to get in the way.
Bodies, mutilated corpses bearing the signs of torture, have started turning up again in Karachi, on the outskirts of the city, in jute sacks. The newspapers, sedated, merely note this. Man found on a highway, cause of death body riddled with bullets, killer unknown – the victim had been shot to death. End of story. There is nothing new about this. Recently, I met the German consul general; he had come to say goodbye – he was retiring from his post and leaving Pakistan. I mentioned the resurgence of tortured bodies and roadside burials, mentioned that there was a time when this happened before. He told me his office had reports of sixty such deaths. Sixty such sacks since the new government took over in February, not even a year ago. I asked him what the timing meant to him. He shrugged and nibbled on some more goodbye cake. 'I'm retiring,' he laughed.
Political opponents of the PPP, not necessarily very active or interesting ones, have left the country. They're waiting out their time in Dubai or London. Those who stayed have missed the opportunity to lounge in exile and have been dealt a different sort of banishment. The former provincial representative of Larkana, a rotund, thuggish fellow, who belonged to an anti-PPP pro-Musharraf party, has been in jail since he lost the February elections. The charge levelled against him is that he plotted to kill the President's sister, a housewife turned politician. His lawyers have quit. No one will defend him. Another opposition member, a currently elected member of parliament and former Chief Minister of Sindh who belongs to the same passé pro-Musharraf party, was physically beaten in the middle of the assembly. The Home Minister, a wealthy business associate of the new President turned politician, came on television after the public beating his party associates had carried out and said, ghoulishly, 'I'm a doctor, we've just treated a sick man.a If he is not careful, he will receive more of our medicine.' The Information Minister of the PPP – who also happens to be a former Karachi socialite and journalist as well as being the Minister of Health and an advisor to the President – said in August, ahead of the new President's debut, that her party 'never indulges in the politics of revenge'. It was telling that such a statement had to be made; they're prostesting too much, thought those of us who have suffered under these political demagogues. But that's how the business of politics is done now.
How have we come to this state of affairs? The journey goes back a long way, before my father was murdered.
Four years ago I set out to trace my father's life. I opened dusty boxes filled with newspaper clippings, letters, diaries and official documents kept and collected by various members of the family over a forty-year period. I unearthed my father's old school bag, kept in its own dusty box, and racked my memory for names of college friends and classmates, cold-calling people whose names sounded familiar and writing long letters to addresses that I hoped were still valid. The search for my father's past took me across Pakistan, from our Karachi home to the peaks of the Frontier province and the lush plains of Punjab. I travelled across Europe and America, searching out lost loves and old acquaintances, all connected in the web of my father's youth. Interviews were conducted in person, by email, and on the telephone. Photographs were scanned and sent across or delivered by mail when we felt that the internet might be too open a space on which to exchange information about sensitive topics. I spoke not only to childhood friends and family members who remembered the Bhutto children at their youngest and most uncomplicated, spread out across continents, but also to police officers, members of my grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's cabinet, founding members and foot soldiers of the original Pakistan People's Party, judges, lawyers, and South Asia experts and professors. There were many who asked that I protect their identity; it is not an easy task to speak out against the status quo, to criticize the legacies of serving parliamentarians and presidents, but they spoke to me still and interviews were conducted in crowded meeting places to circumvent our voices being picked up by the recording devices that logged conversations at home. Other times, when it might have been too dangerous to be seen speaking to me, interviews were done in confined private spaces, without notebooks or pens, memory serving as my only transcriber until I was safely at home and able to put pen to paper and record what I had learned. 70 Clifton, our family home, is an archive in itself. It is a living testament to the Bhuttos. There are still wardrobes filled with my great-grandfather's suits and shelves that hold my grandfather's cologne, Shalimar, his glasses and his cufflinks. Bookcases rise towards the ceiling cluttered with velvet-lined state albums and official government memoranda in musty green leather folders bearing the insignia of the Prime Minister's office. Documents, both written by hand and officially typed, served to build a political as well as a personal chronology.
It has been difficult to surround myself with the lives and scandals of the dead, to immerse myself among their personal effects and to speak to them through interlocutors acting as mediums. I have struggled to imagine people I have loved and known as human beings independent of my recollections. My detective work has been shocking and painful at times, but it was, for me, an uncomfortable and necessary pursuit. Milan Kundera once said that the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting; this is my journey of remembering.

I 9 September 1996. It was close to three in the morning and we were sitting in the drawing room downstairs, a room typical of the house's abstract art deco style, boxed in with no windows, with maroon velvet walls and decorated with modern Pakistani art. We had just come back from dinner at the Avari Hotel. Papa's birthday had been the night before and some friends had invited us for a belated celebration. He was forty-two.
The Avari is one of Karachi's grander hotels, founded by an old Parsi family patriarch, Dinshaw Avari, who eventually passed it, as is the custom in Pakistan, to his son, Byram. It's rather a plain hotel, painted blue and white on the outside, not too ostentatious, unlike the spate of foreign chain hotels that are the Avari's neighbours. In the days before skyscrapers captured the imagination of the city's architects, the Avari was advertised as the country's tallest building. Now banks compete with each other over whose building is the highest as they struggle upwards to escape from the smog and poverty of the city. In the mid-nineties, the Avari Hotel was known for being home to Karachi's only Japanese restaurant, Fujiyama. We had eaten there that night.
That Friday evening Papa was wearing a navy blue suit, one of the few he had that still fitted him. Like his father, my grandfather Zulfikar Ali, Papa was a dandy when it came to clothes and grooming. He was an elegant man, nearly six foot three with salt and pepper hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. Papa had put on weight over the past two years, the busy and tense months that marked our return to Pakistan and the start of a newly public life, and we teased him about it. He took it good-naturedly, insisting that he was going on a diet soon, while my younger brother Zulfi and I patted his belly.
Papa signed the Avari guestbook that night. The staff at the restaurant presented the book to him with a great flourish and opened it, ironically, on the very page where General Zia ul Haq had signed an effusive note. It was the absolute worst page they could have turned to. General Zia presided over the military coup that deposed my grandfather's government. Two years later, after arresting and torturing him, General Zia put my grandfather to death. They say he was hanged, but my family never saw the body. The army had buried my grandfather's body quietly, not even notifying our family, before they released the news of his execution to the public. Papa looked at the General's handwriting. He calmly read the General's thoughts on Fujiyama's fine cuisine before making a face at me, sticking his tongue out and frowning comically, one of the few light moments we had that night at dinner, and then turned several pages on and began to write.
At dinner Papa was quiet. He sat across the table from me with his arms crossed in front of him, his chin resting in the bridge made of his intertwined fingers. It made me nervous to see Papa, usually animated and boisterous, so subdued.
Two days earlier, Papa had returned to Karachi from a trip to Peshawar feeling calm and rested. He had arrived late and was eating dinner and telling Mummy and me about his trip when, shortly after midnight, the intercom phone in the drawing room rang. It could only be someone in the kitchen or in the office next door at 71 Clifton: no one else was awake. The kitchen was close by and Asghar, our bearer, could have walked over if he needed to tell us anything. It had to be the office. Papa picked up the phone on the first ring. 'Gi?' he said, yes? He listened quietly for a few minutes. 'Gari tayar karo, jaldi,' he said, get the car ready, quickly. His relaxed mood was gone. Papa put down the phone, stood up and walked towards the door that connected to my parents' bedroom. 'What's happened?' I asked. 'They've taken Ali Sonara,' Papa replied. 'They just raided his house and took him.' 'Where are you going?' I asked slowly as Mummy's hands went softly to steady my back, patting me and reminding me that she was still there, that things were going to be OK. 'I'm going to find him,' Papa said and walked out of the drawing room.
Ali Sonara was from Lyari, one of the most densely populated, politically radical and poorest neighbourhoods of Karachi. He belonged to a Katchi Memon family, a small Sunni community whose roots in the region can be traced back to the Ran of Kutch and Sindh desert regions. He had been a loyal supporter of the Bhutto family since his early schooldays. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been overthrown and arrested by General Zia's military coup in 1977, Sonara abandoned his studies and became one of Lyari's most prominent activists.
He joined the Save Bhutto Committee in his community and worked tirelessly to oppose General Zia's abrogation of the 1973 constitution. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was killed by the military government in 1979, Sonara joined the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and worked closely with my aunt, Benazir Bhutto, for the next ten years. He was a member of the movement's Karachi Committee and spent his time distributing pamphlets against martial law and the illegality of Bhutto's execution, holding covert meetings to enlist local support and organizing protests and demonstrations.


On Sale
Sep 6, 2011
Page Count
496 pages
Bold Type Books

Fatima Bhutto

About the Author

Fatima Bhutto studied at Columbia University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. An acclaimed poet and journalist, she currently writes columns for the Daily Beast, New Statesman, and other publications. She lives in Karachi.

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